De Palma, Brian
Brian De Palma 1940–
American director and screenwriter.
De Palma's best-known films lie somewhere between the thriller and horror genres. The plots are often confusing and shrouded in mystery. Dreams and the supernatural are integral parts of many of De Palma's films, as are grisly, horrifying deaths and murders. Critics see De Palma as the most Hitchcockian of all current filmmakers.
De Palma's first films give little clue as to his future. Greetings and Hi, Mom! are youth-oriented films satirizing the beliefs and ideals of the older generation. When the films were first released, catch phrases such as "semi-underground" were used to describe them, contributing to their status as "cult" films.
Phantom of the Paradise is a pivotal film in De Palma's body of work. It contains much of the humorous satire of Greetings and Hi, Mom! More importantly, however, it includes many of the elements of thriller and horror films. A sense of uneasiness is created through the use of offbeat humor and special effects. These devices are repeated in De Palma's later films.
Carrie was De Palma's first great commercial success. The film combines terror, pathos, supernatural elements, and dark humor, and is suspenseful throughout. More than his earlier Sisters and Obsession, Carrie deals in what De Palma calls "surrealistic, erotic imagery." The Fury is so similar in theme to Carrie that many critics see it as a direct, albeit inferior, steal, and have viciously attacked De Palma for his lack of sustainable creativity.
Dressed to Kill is the most Hitchockian of De Palma's films. Its scenes of extreme violence and explicit sex have led some people to term the film pornographic. However, others see it as a modern-day extension of Hitchcock's films. De Palma himself refutes this, saying that "Dressed to Kill has more of a Buñuel feel to it."
Blow Out contains many of the same elements as his previous films. De Palma describes the work as a "detective thriller" about a film sound effects editor who witnesses a political assassination. Thus, despite his statements to the contrary, De Palma seems to be shaping a body of work which will likely continue to be compared with the films of Hitchcock. At the same time, however, many critics find the combinations of diverse elements in De Palma's films to be highly original and creative.
"Murder à la Mod," the first feature to be released here by de Palma, is [an] ambitious and abrasive work. It opens with an unseen director screen testing girls for the lead in a nudie murder mystery, which without the nudie element, becomes the frame for the film itself.
It's as difficult to tell the difference between the reality and the illusion within the film as it is between the blood and catchup in the film-within-the-film.
"Murder à la Mod," has a mind and reality of its own. It's completely logical in its use of cinematic tricks—speeded-up action and slow motion, and slapstick humor that is not funny, juxtaposed with mayhem that is.
There is a limit as to just how far this sort of playfulness can be carried. In the context of most of today's moviemaking, however, it's fun to see directors who are willing to acknowledge the movie form, and who do not try to convince us that what we see on the screen is necessarily "real." When they don't try—curiously—we often do believe, which is what movies are all about.
Vincent Canby, "Films for Film's Sake," in The New York Times (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 2, 1968, p. 57.∗
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"Greetings" [is] the funniest and most contemporary American comedy since [Kubrick's] "Dr. Strangelove." This comparative judgement is less indicative of the excellence of "Greetings," than it is of the general irrelevance of American comedies. "Greetings" isn't a very great film, but it certainly is a rarity. It shines out like a gas lantern in an amphitheater….
When "Greetings" first flashes on the screen, the young viewer is taken back: they really are talking about things he cares about. American comedies—even the funny ones—are notoriously behind the times, but the so-called "youth films" are not only old-fashioned, but bland and glum…. As any hipster knows, there are some guys who can get away with saying "Hey man" and some who can't. Brian DePalma is one who can.
"Greetings" manages to include a satirical comment on just about every cause or fad that fills the youthful mind: the draft, computer dating, shoplifting, stag films, JFK's assassination, abstract sculpture, sex positions, Vietnam, high-culture movies, and peeping toms. In other words, everything that movies usually avoid.
DePalma blends the comic styles of Godard and The Committee. Like Godard, DePalma has the courage not to move the camera to let a scene play out its inherent humor…. Like The Committee "Greetings" has a cynical, no-bullshit sense of humor, like Godard it exhibits an artificial and ambiguous frame of...
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A. D. Malmfelt
Greetings is, quite simply, a fraud. For it pretends to be about the young and the hip, while actually being about what the middle-aged and the square consider the young and hip to be. Yet, oddly enough, even the film's detractors appear not actively to dislike it. The worst objections have been to the effect that the film is very crudely made but that it at least has its heart in the right place…. In point of fact, Greetings has its heart in the right place only on a commercial level. But even if one assumes that the makers of the film have not intentionally pandered to some public concept of what the youth of today is all about for the sake of their own financial gain, the kindest thing that can then be said is that they have failed not morally but intellectually. (pp. 37-8)
[There] is no evidence of a directorial personality at all, much less one capable of imposing on the film a world vision extending beyond the limitations of the script…. In their quest for the contemporary [the filmmakers] have paid close attention to the miscellaneous parts of their film but have given little evident thought to the whole, either as a structural work or as an expression of some rational point of view. Everything has been sacrificed to the twin goals of presenting an easily recognizable picture of youth and of provoking a few laughs. It seems not to have occurred to them that to be conceptually silly, thematically inconsistent...
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With an unconventional technique, including quick-cut editing and speeded-up locomotion reminiscent of the old silent comedies, plus an impromptu flavoring, ["The Wedding Party"] starts extremely skittishly, levels off appealing and comes in a neat winner.
The opening chapter, with a formidable old country house swarming with wedding relatives and guests, bounces along with an arch, peppery detachment that gets a bit wearing, along with a frisky musical score heralding the humor. Some viewers may wonder if the writer-director-producer team—Cynthia Munroe, Brian de Palma and Wilford Leach—hasn't simply aimed its camera helter-skelter and let fly. Not at all.
The picture often verges on slapstick, and once or twice plunges in headfirst. A wonderfully funny and brash chase scene toward the end, with the reluctant bridegroom pursued by two pals, is pure Mack Sennett. And some of the wedding participants and their monologues seem overly caricaturized. But at about midpoint the human element begins to shine through….
Best of all is the exact middle sequence, when a hilarious premarriage banquet develops into a near-seduction scene upstairs between the tipsy bridegroom and the wallflower church organist, that can only be called endearing. The utterly natural flow and simplicity of this vignette, as sweet as it is comical, is the real pulse of the picture….
As newcomers to the...
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Among contemporary urban-scene-movies … Brian De Palma's "Hi, Mom!" stands out for its wit, its ironic good humor, its multilevel sophistications, its technical ingenuity, its nervousness, and its very special ability to bring the sensibility of the suburbs to the sins of the inner city. With no recognizable landmark further north than Cooper Square, it nevertheless feels like Bronxville or the quieter stretches of the upper East Side.
Not that it aspires to quietness or that it even for a second eschews relevancy….
"Hi, Mom!" turns approximately every other current social misery to a comedy that is sometimes quite elaborately successful and sometimes only well intentioned. As in De Palma's previous "Greetings," the humor, at its best, is understated but highly structured—so that you have to work a bit for your laughs. But "Hi, Mom!" is much sharper, crueler, funnier. Although it scatters some shots (often in a kind of fast-motion photography that seems an addiction of De Palma's) it pulls enough together to suggest some major insights….
But it is the minor insights that most happily remain: the white black-power activist … who for a second demurs before painting his body entirely black; the pornographic-movie impresario … who wants to make "the first children's exploitation film—nothing dirty, nothing smutty;" or the mere idea of the TV show that chronicles the opening...
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Hi, Mom! is, regrettably, an almost total waste of time. The filmmakers have run out of ideas: they either try to milk the same situations as [in Greetings] (making Peeping-Tom sex films), or if they come up with something new (militant Black Theater that humiliates and manhandles white liberal audiences), they stretch it out as desperately as beggars their last crust of bread.
There are even more basic problems. Hi, Mom! is clearly improvisatory cinema, an enterprise that requires true brilliance somewhere. It may be in the director (e.g., Fellini, in some of his earlier films), or it may be in the performers…. Here, however, brilliance is not forthcoming…. And whereas Greetings had a unifying plot device—how to stay out of the Army—there is not such central motif here…. I could go on, but let me leave a stone or two unturned, in case you do want to see the film for the sake of your fond recollections of its predecessor. It needs to keep its few mild surprises undivulged. (p. 124)
John Simon. "The Youth Film: 'Hi, Mom!'; 'The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart'" (originally published as "Youth Films: Onward and Downward," in The New Leader, Vol. LIII, No. 11, May 25, 1970), in his Movies into Film: Film Criticism 1967–1970 (copyright © 1971 by John Simon; reprinted with permission of The Dial Press), Dial, 1971, 124-26.∗...
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[De Palma] is a very funny filmmaker. He's most funny, so far, anyway, when he's most anarchic, and "Get to Know Your Rabbit," though somewhat inhibited by conventional form, has enough hilarious loose ends and sidetracks to liberate the film from its form….
Movies that promote the importance of non-conformity are almost always fraudulent or, what's worse, they're sentimental…. "Get to Know Your Rabbit" largely avoids those pitfalls, and with a great deal of comic exuberance. It also reinforces my expectation that De Palma will one day make a really fine American comedy.
Vincent Canby, "'Get to Know Your Rabbit'," in The New York Times (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 21, 1973 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1973–1974, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1975, p. 103).
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["Sisters" is] a good, substantial horror film with such a sense of humor that it never can quite achieve the solemnly repellent peaks of Roman Polanski's "Repulsion." Never, however, does it become the sort of Nancy Drew detective tale it otherwise resembles, at least in outline….
Mr. De Palma, best known for his anarchic comedy …, reveals himself here to be a first-rate director of more or less conventional material that has associations not only with "Repulsion" but also with Hitchcock's "Psycho." The "Psycho" associations are unfortunate, since they tip one important plot point sooner than is absolutely necessary….
An intelligent horror film is very rare these days. "Sisters" … is just the thing to see on one of those nights when you want to go to the movies for the old-fashioned fun of it.
Vincent Canby, "'Sisters'," in The New York Times (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 27, 1973 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1973–1974, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1975, p. 106).
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Brian De Palma's "Phantom of the Paradise" is a very busy movie.
Among other things it attempts to be a put-on of "Faust," "The Phantom of the Opera," "The Picture of Dorian Gray," rock music, the rock music industry, rock music movies and horror movies.
The problem is that since all of these things, with the possible exception of "Faust" (and I'm not really sure about "Faust"), already contain elements of self-parody, there isn't much that the outside parodist can do to make the parody seem funnier or more absurd than the originals already are….
Compared with even the last of [De Palma's earlier films,] "Phantom of the Paradise" is an elaborate disaster, full of the kind of facetious humor you might find on bumper stickers and cocktail coasters.
The movie spends much too much time just laying out the plot, which is fatal to parody of any sort. It also becomes quite enchanted with its own special photographic effects, as well as with its bizarre sets, which, because there's very little of interest going on within them, become the mildly amusing surrogate subjects of the film.
Almost redeeming the movie is the rock score by [Paul] Williams, and the comic orchestrations that trace the evolution of rock from the duck-tailed, surfing nineteen-fifties and sixties to the seventies and the triumphant emergence of androgyny. The concert scenes—filled with pandemonium,...
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Brian De Palma, the writer-director of "Phantom of the Paradise," thrives on frowzy visual hyperbole. When he tries to set up a simple scene establishing that boy composer loves girl singer, he is a helpless amateur, but when he sets up a highly stylized paranoid fantasy with gyrating figures on a stage and an audience that is having its limbs hacked off, you can practically hear him cackling with happiness, and the scene carries a jolt. De Palma, who can't tell a plain story, does something that a couple of generations of student and underground filmmakers have been trying to do and nobody else has ever brought off. He creates a new Guignol, in a modern idiom, out of the movie Guignol of the past…. [A] mixture of "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Faust" (via "The Devil and Daniel Webster") isn't enough for De Palma. He heaps on layers of rock satire, and parodies of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Psycho," and "The Picture of Dorian Gray"—and the impacted plots actually function for him. De Palma is drawn to rabid visual exaggeration and sophisticated, satirical low comedy. This slapstick expressionism is idiosyncratic in the extreme. It's De Palma's flukiness that makes "Phantom" so entertaining.
Though you may anticipate a plot turn, it's impossible to guess what the next scene will look like or what its rhythm will be. De Palma's timing is sometimes wantonly unpredictable and dampening, but...
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Too broad in its effects and too bloated in style to cut very deeply as a parody of The Phantom of the Opera, Brian De Palma's [Phantom of the Paradise] is closer to the anything goes mode of a Mad magazine lampoon. De Palma's last feature to be released in this country, Blood Sisters [also released as Sisters], was a reasonably efficient pastiche/parody of Alfred Hitchcock; here he seems to have been infected with a large dose of [Ken] Russellmania, and while not up to the razzle-dazzle effects that the Master commands on a doubtlessly larger budget, Phantom of the Paradise nevertheless offers fair competition to and comes on much like Tommy…. Unfortunately, the mating of the [Phantom and Faust] legends proves simply to be the film's most spectacular coup, rather than the basis for any kind of comic reworking of either. The entertainment, in fact, develops into a loudly trumpeted advertisement for an ever-receding subject, and the packaging becomes increasingly desperate; like the noisily unimaginative messiah plot which overtakes Tommy once the hero has been projected through the looking glass into his true identity, Phantom of the Paradise winds itself by way of conclusion into an awful mélange of orgiastic pop concert and the vicarious, electronic excitement of a Kennedy-Oswald-Manchurian Candidate assassination attempt, televised coast-to-coast…. The presentation of Paul...
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Brian De Palma's "Obsession" is an hommage to Hitchcock's "Vertigo."… But it is intellectually muddleheaded in a way that Hitchcock's films never are. It is not up to the Master's insteps. There is a point at which hommage has an enfeebling trait of echolalia. (p. 61)
The plot proceeds, but it keeps faltering, because of De Palma's damaging affection for throwing the obvious into doubt. The screen gets the shimmers at key moments, which is a cheat. Are we watching a subjective expression of the hero's troubled state of mind? Or dreams? Or hallucinations? Story points keep being coated in Vaseline….
Brian De Palma obviously has an idiosyncratic point of view and a load of monkey-on-a-stick energy, but he wrecks his talent again and again by mistaking the random for the freewheeling. The confusion is typical of our times, and ruinous to this particular film: in making a thriller, exactitude counts. "Obsession" raises a good many questions that are never answered. It is also sometimes fogged enough to let a plot point rely on characters' witlessness, and such a reliance is not at all the same thing as dramatic irony. Dramatic irony rests on an audience's having fuller information than the characters, not on its being more clever. (p. 62)
Penelope Gilliatt, "Sweet Coz," in The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LII, No. 24, August 2,...
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Obsession attitudinizes in three directions: toward the Hitchcockian thriller, toward the old-fashioned tearjerker, and toward the sophisticated European film, with cultural references strewn like bread crumbs along the way of Hansel and Gretel.
Such a mishmash could be endearing; as it happens, it is neither mish nor mash so much as mush….
[Paul] Schrader and De Palma have loaded their penny dreadful with allusions high and low. There are overtones of The Winter's Tale, the Bluebeard story, Rebecca, and, of course, Vertigo. There are quotations from Dante's Vita nuova, likewise a tale of loving obsession. And there is more: The fresco with whose restoration Sandra assists is by Bernardo Daddi; it is a Virgin and Child, whose damaging has revealed an earlier work underneath—which one of them is to be sacrificed for the other? Why such fuss over a lesser master like Daddi, for whom Sandra and the restorers finally opt? Because Sandra's heart, however ironically and ferally, belongs to Daddy. And why the Virgin and Child? Because love between child and mother is what really motivates Sandra. And why is it the earlier work that is sacrificed? An anterior life must be abandoned both by Michael and Sandra for the sake of a vita nuova.
The movie is full of such otiose allusiveness and gamesmanship. Sandra's last name is Portinari—after Dante's Beatrice, of...
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Carrie is a terrifyingly lyrical thriller. The director, Brian De Palma, has mastered a teasing style—a perverse mixture of comedy and horror and tension, like that of Hitchcock or Polanski, but with a lulling sensuousness. He builds our apprehensions languorously, softening us for the kill. You know you're being manipulated, but he works in such a literal way and with so much candor that you have the pleasure of observing how he affects your susceptibilities even while you're going into shock. Scary-and-funny must be the greatest combination for popular entertainment; anything-and-funny is, of course, great—even funny-and-funny. But we come out of a movie like Carrie, as we did out of [Steven Spielberg's] Jaws, laughing at our own childishness. (p. 208)
Carrie is a menstrual joke—a film noir in red. This picture has some of the psychic grip of [Martin Scorsese's] Taxi Driver, yet isn't frightening in the same way, because it's essentially a pretty piece of paste jewelry. Carrie looks like a piece of candy: when De Palma is most distinctive, his work calls up so many junky memories it's pure candied exploitation—a funny archetypal nightmare. De Palma uses tawdriness as a tuning fork. No one else has ever caught the thrill that teen-agers get from a dirty joke and sustained it for a whole picture.
There are no characters in Carrie; there are only schlock...
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[In Obsession,] De Palma has suppressed his own strong personal style … consciously manipulating [the familiar Hitchcockian] elements so that the suspense is maintained to the key decision and understanding of the final shot. It's a stylish and accomplished achievement….
Along with Ted Flicker's work De Palma's Greetings and its quasi sequel Hi Mom! were the most accurate expression of the late sixties in America…. These films lead to the flamboyance of Phantom of the Paradise while the comparatively subdued Get to Know Your Rabbit or Sisters edge towards Obsession….
One of the most entertaining films of the year, Obsession confirms De Palma and his collaborators as among the most talented of contemporary film makers.
Barrie Pattison, "Films of the Month: 'Obsession'," in Film (reprinted by permission of British Federation of Film Societies), No. 44, December, 1976, p. 6.
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Royal S. Brown
De Palma sets us up with a cinematic technique in the same way Hitchcock sets us up for the shower scene in Psycho, with the rainstorm, the gothic setting, and the kinky motel manager with his stuffed animals, all of which play on negative predispositions in the audience's minds. In both cases, the directors have shown an awareness that the deepest impression comes not from the jolting, unprepared violence found in B-horror flicks, but from modulated variations, as extreme as some may be, which are all threads of a single fabric.
De Palma fits Carrie's finale into the film very much the way a composer would close a musical composition, by reusing a "progression" that has been solidly established within the artistic structure. Each of the film's three climactic scenes—the locker room sequence leading up to Carrie's first menstruation; the sequence where Carrie and Tommy Ross are crowned queen and king of the senior prom and then doused in pig's blood; and the concluding sequence—are all shot in slow motion. So by the time the third sequence of slow-motion lyricism begins, the audience is well acquainted with the inevitable modulation to blood, whether menstrual, pig, or, ultimately, the blood of death. (pp. 54-5)
In spite of its fairly conventional story line, The Wedding Party, with its jump cuts, its slow and fast motion, and its often improvised acting, indicated a revolt against traditional...
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"The Fury" was directed by Brian De Palma in what appears to have been an all-out effort to transform the small-scale, Grand Guignol comedy of his "Carrie" into an international horror/spy/occult mind-blower of a movie. He didn't concentrate hard enough, though "The Fury" is bigger than "Carrie," more elaborate, much more expensive and far sillier. Let's face it—it's the De Palma "1900"—a movie that somehow got out of hand.
It's also, in fits and starts, the kind of mindless fun that only a horror movie that so seriously pretends to be about the mind can be. Mr. De Palma seems to have been less interested in the overall movie than in pulling off a couple of spectacular set-pieces, which he does. He leaves the rest of "The Fury" to take care of itself….
The things that keep one sitting through "The Fury" when one's mind knows better are the occasional action sequences … and the special effects that finally bring the movie to an end that recalls [Antonioni's] "Zabriskie Point," on a more personal level.
Vincent Canby, "Psyching a Spy," in The New York Times (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 15, 1978 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1977–1978, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1979, p. 182).
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There's an ecstatic element in Brian De Palma's new thriller The Fury: he seems to extend the effects he's playing with about as far as he can without losing control. This inferno comedy is perched right on the edge. It may be to De Palma what The Wild Bunch was to Peckinpah. You feel he never has to make another horror movie. To go on would mean trying to kill people in ever more photogenically horrific ways, and he's already got two killings in The Fury which go so far beyond anything in his last film, Carrie, that that now seems like child's play. There's a potency about the murders here—as if De Palma were competing with himself, saying "You thought Carrie was frightening? Look at this!" He's not a great storyteller; he's careless about giving the audience its bearings. But De Palma is one of the few directors in the sound era to make a horror film that is so visually compelling that a viewer seems to have entered a mythic night world. Inside that world, transfixed, we can hear the faint, distant sound of De Palma cackling with pleasure.
Most other directors save the lives of the kind, sympathetic characters; De Palma shatters any Pollyanna thoughts—any expectations that a person's goodness will protect him. He goes past Hitchcock's perversity into something gleefully kinky. In Carrie, he built a two-way tension between our hope that the friendless, withdrawn, telekinetic heroine would...
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[If] I were tempted to turn off my mind, it would be for something like Brian DePalma's latest exercise in torrential terror. By the end of The Fury, the bloody, extra-sensory carnage seems a bit much, but I must confess that the film as a whole tended to absorb me into its wild fancies. I was entertained. The movie was fun. Still, the spoilsport critic within this fun-loving fool is not entirely sure that The Fury deserves a clean bill of health as a coherent piece of work.
To the adolescent aggressiveness of Carrie, DePalma and his novelist-scenarist John Farris have added the political paranoia of the post-Watergate era in which the CIA can be accused of virtually anything.
DePalma and Farris have more than one surprise in store for us before the ultimate bloodbath. At first glance, the director seems shameless in filching Hitchcock's wrist-clutching climaxes from Saboteur and To Catch a Thief, and Antonioni's explosive catharsis from Zabriskie Point, but DePalma develops his own gruesome variations on these stylistic flourishes, and overall there is more bloodshed here than in any movie since Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. Indeed, the spilling of blood in The Fury comes close to being hard-core pornography for the medium in a way that supposedly real sex is not.
For a project so lurid, the acting is surprisingly thoughtful and...
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Any movie that contains a doctor-nurse joke is all right by me. Brian De Palma's "Home Movies" contains not one but several doctor-nurse jokes or, even better, doctor-nurse sequences….
"Home Movies" also contains jokes about innocent young men who are still virgins and virginal-looking young women who aren't, sexist jokes, jokes about marital infidelity and closet homosexuals, even movie jokes. They aren't all hilarious, but even the ones that aren't knee-slappers are friendly, if only for being well-meant….
["Home Movies"] is a movie that deals proudly in undergraduate humor….
"Home Movies" is nothing if not casual in form. Sometimes it's a movie-within-a-movie and sometimes it's simply a movie, though it's always about Denis Byrd …, an earnest, shy young man who is described variously as "an extra in his own life," "a frozen frame in his own movie" and "forgotten in his own time."…
I'm not sure it's fair to put "Home Movies" into commercial release…. Order and consistency are not its strong points. However, in its antic, anarchic, ebullient way, it recalls the young Brian De Palma who, before winning commercial success with such suspense-horror films as "Carrie" and "The Fury," delighted a small, fanatically loyal audience with his low-budget comedies, "Hi, Mom" and "Greetings." That's very nice, indeed.
Vincent Canby, "Screen:...
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A fatal air of insideyness and glorified amateurism infects ["Home Movies"], which is a low comedy about sex, ugly parents, and filmmaking. Almost everyone in the picture is making a movie or is about to appear in one…. [The picture] sometimes appears to be part of film sequences being explicated to a class…. The youthfully experimental and extemporaneous circumstances under which "Home Movies" was to be made must have convinced someone (perhaps Mr. De Palma) that it would be appropriate to make it a farce—a very bad decision indeed, because convincingly zany, knockabout comedy is one of the most difficult of all forms, requiring a sharp script, first-class acting, and rigorous cutting and pacing. None of these are in evidence in this picture, which counts heavily on its self-congratulatory amateurism and gawky charm to carry it past a great many rough places…. "Home Movies" will probably cause many a giggle among the film cognoscenti in its audiences …, but I wonder how many of them will smile about it afterward, when they're alone. The movie is too small and messy to qualify as a disaster. (pp. 148-49)
Roger Angell, "A Quilt of Horsemen," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVI, No. 13, May 19, 1980, pp. 143-44, 147-49.∗
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[Dressed to Kill] is the first great American movie of the eighties. Violent, erotic, and wickedly funny, Dressed to Kill is propelled forward by scenes so juicily sensational that they pass over into absurdity. De Palma releases terror in laughter: Even at his most outrageous, Hitchcock could not have been as entertaining as this.
For the easily frightened moviegoer, De Palma's flamboyance is reassuringly "cinematic": You can see that he's using film techniques and tricks to get at unconscious fears and to extend the lyrical possibilities of violence, and you admire his sadistic virtuosity even as he's manipulating you unconscionably. As in such past De Palma thrillers as Sisters and Carrie, he draws on preposterous, National Enquirer materials—a murderous transvestite in a blond fright wig—and yet his style has infinitely more authority than that of directors working in culturally respectable forms. Trash liberates his imagination and his lawless sense of play….
Hitchcock remains the dominant influence …, but there's more than a touch of the greater master Buñuel in the subversive reality-or-fantasy games and in the way that De Palma sees women's sexual fantasies as both dangerous and funny. Of course, De Palma is no surrealist; he's a tabloid fatalist….
De Palma may be the first director to use pornography as a way of dramatizing the unconscious…. De...
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In "Dressed to Kill," everybody is spying on everybody else, or trying to. And the director, Brian De Palma, who also wrote the script, is the master spy….
Over the years, De Palma has developed as an artist by moving further into his material, getting to deeper levels of erotic comedy and funnier levels of violation. If he has learned a great deal from Hitchcock (and Welles and Godard and Polanski and Scorsese and many others), he has altered its nature with a funky sensuousness that is all his own. The gliding, glazed-fruit cinematography is intoxicating but there's an underlay of dread, and there's something excessive in the music that's swooshing up your emotions. You know you're being toyed with. The apprehensive moods are stretched out voluptuously, satirically—De Palma primes you for what's going to happen and for a lot that doesn't happen. He sustains moods for so long that you feel emotionally encircled. He pulls you in and draws the wires taut or relaxes them; he practically controls your breathing….
He knows where to put the camera and how to make every move count, and his timing is so great that when he wants you to feel something he gets you every time. His thriller technique, constantly refined, has become insidious, jewelled. It's hardly possible to find a point at which you could tear yourself away from this picture. (p. 68)
There's very little dialogue altogether in "Dressed to...
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De Palma's latest effort, Dressed to Kill, borrows liberally from his previous films: the "surprise" ending, a shock that turns out to be merely a nightmare, recalls Carrie; the element of voyeurism derives from Hi Mom! and Home Movies. But these are nothing compared to what De Palma steals from Hitchcock. Adding a little nudity and sex, he makes off with more or less everything from Psycho, right down to the shower scene and the psychopathic killer who dresses in women's clothing.
What De Palma leaves behind is Hitchcock's cynical Catholicism. His point of view, as both a writer and a director, is simply amoral; he dispatches his characters in spectacularly gory fashion with no justification other than sheer delight in the kinetic possibilities of killing on screen. The violence in his movies—with the important exception of Carrie—is commited for esthetic reasons alone…. De Palma makes films that are meaninglessly violent….
In Dressed to Kill the blood and gore seem to serve no purpose except to convey the filmmaker's contempt for his audience. The film's gruesome ending is purely gratuitous. Who is getting pleasure out of such violence? It can only be De Palma himself, smirking at his own manipulativeness. Audiences are not annoyed at such violence because it arouses feelings they are afraid to deal with; they are disgusted that they have let their emotions be...
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There is plenty of terror in Dressed to Kill, but the aesthetic distance that separates De Palma from Hitchcock can be measured by the absence of any emotion approaching pity. De Palma never tries to get inside Dr. Elliott, the would-be transsexual murderer …: he merely uses the characters as a catalyst for the succession of jolts that provide the film with its tenuous unity. The director has learned too well from Hitchcock how to manipulate the emotions of an audience, but whereas Hitchcock directed the means of the manipulation toward a larger end, De Palma is consumed by the methods alone. Hitchcock was always straining to perceive the nature of evil; De Palma, at least at this point in his career, seems more interested in exploiting its more sensational manifestations. (p. 54)
Despite, or perhaps because of, his slavish recapitulation of key sequences from Hitchcock, De Palma has never been able to transform the borrowings into anything more than inferior quotations from superior films. Unlike, say Claude Chabrol, De Palma lacks the searing vision that would assimilate Hitchcock's techniques into a coherent work of personal expression. Dressed to Kill lurches along from one set piece to another, but there is nothing but dead space in between.
De Palma is sloppy when it comes to the details and logic that might enable us to suspend our disbelief…. [Too] often De Palma's toying with fantasy and...
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"Blow Out" isn't a comedy or a film of the macabre; it involves the assassination of the most popular candidate for the Presidency, so it might be called a political thriller, but it isn't really a genre film. For the first time, De Palma goes inside his central character…. And he stays inside. He has become so proficient in the techniques of suspense that he can use what he knows more expressively. You don't see set pieces in "Blow Out"—it flows, and everything that happens seems to go right to your head. It's hallucinatory, and it has a dreamlike clarity and inevitability, but you'll never make the mistake of thinking that it's only a dream. (p. 74)
Jack is a man whose talents backfire. He thinks he can do more with technology than he can; he doesn't allow for the human weirdnesses that snarl things up. (p. 77)
At the end, Jack's feelings of grief and loss suggest that he has learned the limits of technology; it's like coming out of the cocoon of adolescence. "Blow Out" is the first movie in which De Palma has stripped away the cackle and the glee; this time he's not inviting you to laugh along with him. He's playing it straight, and asking you—trusting you—to respond.
In "The Fury," he tried to draw you into the characters' emotions by a fantasy framework; in "Blow Out," he locates the fantasy material inside the characters' heads. There was true vitality in the hyperbolic, teasing...
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De Palma makes movies about divided personalities, characters uncertain of their social and psychological identities, torn between impulse and reason. He plays dark games with them among the land mines of our cities, where a rape, a race riot or a revolution could be just around the corner. His material is often Grand Guignol, but the intelligence behind it is as sophisticated as Edgar Allan Poe's.
A daring writer and director, De Palma attacks his controversial themes with new frankness and confidence in Blow Out. This powerful political thriller—raunchy, funny, yet poetic—is the most startlingly fresh film released so far this year. Its vision of a robotized United States, tranquilized by the media and caught up in the escapist politics of "patriotism," registers like a clarion call to the nation: get serious!…
It's unusual for political thrillers to carry a tragic sting, but in Blow Out, the characters' downfalls, particularly Jack's, are determined partly by their personalities. Jack is a victim of his media obsessions—a voyeur of his own life—trying to use technology to beat technology. As the movie progresses, his feelings of impotence tighten around him like a noose…. (p. 38)
Blow Out is a thrillingly complicated film, exact in its elusiveness. The random encounters between characters have been carefully planned; they show us how conspiracies derive from...
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